I cannot deny that I am a rather selfish seamstress. My daughter even asked me recently why I don’t make many clothes for her. My answer is that the care, attention, and cost of making more than the occasional outfit for children seems outweighed by the fact that they grow too fast to get much wear out of these items. I tend to limit my sewing for my children to wedding ensembles or fun dressing up clothes which they truly love and wear until they can barely squeeze into them (a prime example is my son’s Jedi costume which he has been wearing for 3 years and the seams are fit to burst!).
Then there are those occasions more exciting, life-altering and wonderful than a wedding. And there enters the un-selfish sewing. The kind of sewing where the care and attention are everything. It doesn’t matter how long it takes or how much it costs because you’re making something full of love and longevity, which will be treasured for more than a season and maybe even last a lifetime.
When my younger brother and his wife announced that they were expecting their first baby, I knew that I wanted to make something special for our family’s new arrival.
Despite all my years of sewing, I’ve never made a quilt before this. It seemed like such a huge, almost overwhelming sort of project to someone who generally likes a quick sewing fix and a new dress or two. I was probably more than a little put off by the thought of choosing a pattern, figuring out how much fabric is required, spending hours just cutting things out, and then the repetition of sewing blocks together. That’s before even considering the need to sew with such a precise seam allowance, matching everything carefully, and sewing endless lines of quilting!
But when you take a step back, and think in terms of a simple quilt for a baby, the challenge is a little less daunting, and a lot more fun. I decided to go for simple rows of triangles in a range of coordinating fabrics – I used the ‘Maribel’ collection by Annabel Wrigley for Windham fabrics, choosing 8 fat quarters from this range. I don’t think a pattern is necessary for this type of quilt. I just made a cardboard triangle template with quarter inch seam allowances added. I set to, just cutting as many triangles as I could from each fabric, layering up where I could and cutting with a rotary cutter.
My daughter, aged 10, really wanted to get involved with this special project. She was so excited when we heard that her newest cousin was going to be a girl! Her first task was to arrange the triangles. We took measurements from her own much-loved (but not handmade!) cot-bed sized quilt, and calculated how many triangles we would need and how many rows. We just about had enough, with some fabric left over to cut the half triangles for the ends of each row. I decided that we would later add a simple border to get exactly the size we wanted. There are seven rows, each with 9 triangles and a half triangle at each end.
It’s remarkable how much time it took to arrange the triangles to everyone’s satisfaction! The whole family got involved, trying to make sure the balance was right, and there weren’t too many of one colour or pattern in any particular area. Although this isn’t a quilt with any sort of regimented design, nothing was left to chance! The photo below shows our second and final attempt to get everything ‘perfect’. You can see a photo at the top, which is my daughter’s first arrangement. I can’t even remember what needed to be changed now! You can also just about see the edge of my daughter’s quilt underneath. At this stage they look the same size, but when all of those seam allowances are sewn together the size reduced enough to add a border.
I am blessed with a very talented daughter, who has clearly inherited my sewing skills. She started sewing a little at the age of seven, but since we’ve been running Stitch Club she’s really proven herself to be very capable. Sewing shapes together for a quilt top requires absolute precision and I wasn’t sure how she would get on with this. However, she took her time as I showed her how to pin and sew with a careful quarter-inch seam allowance. When it came to matching our rows together her’s was a fraction smaller, but her seams were so neat that I had to measure each one to find anything ‘off’! In the end she did just one row – I think perhaps the repetition of quilting is a bit much at 10 years old! However, the feeling, for both of us, of sewing something so special together is a happy memory.
Left to my own devices, things came together quite quickly. I sewed the rows together as they were completed, to ensure that everything was matching up. I was relieved, upon sewing things together that the triangles hadn’t lost their points!
Now, I do hate to iron, but I’ll tell anyone who’ll listen that I love to press! While ironing is a bore to me, crisply pressing a carefully sewn seam is a joy. With the quilt top, it was even a little addictive. My daughter was keen to do this step and I allowed her to with her own row, but kept the rest for myself! As I have said, the process of sewing a quilt is new to me. I did plenty of research before and during, and the question of pressing the seams was something I needed an answer to. I had assumed beforehand, that seams would be pressed open. While many quilters choose this method, the case for not doing so is that an open seam will have less strength and could be impaired as you later quilt over it. I’m glad I didn’t press this way as much of my quilting was ‘in the ditch’ (sewing directly into the seam stitching). Best advice, it seems, is to press seams together, towards the darkest fabric so as not to show through.
Once all of the triangles were sewn and pressed, it was time to add the border. I used a basic white quilting cotton, cutting strips from the piece I had bought for the quilt back. I didn’t take photos of this stage, but I made a 6cm border with mitred corners. Mitred corners aren’t particularly tricky, but need to be done with precision. I was really pleased with mine, and again, much satisfying pressing ensued! This photo, clearly, is of the finished quilt after binding and washing.
At this stage, the quilt was ready to be assembled. Having done a little research on suitable battings, I chose Hobbs Heirloom cotton batting. I cut this larger than the quilt top, as I did with the white cotton backing (but only just as I was a little short after cutting the border strips!). I’m lucky to have a very large sewing table, so didn’t need to resort to using the floor, which must be the usual quilting way. I took a lot of care pinning the three layers together, using plenty of safety pins. Again, a result of my quilting research led me to this – otherwise I would have just used pins! The safety pins are ideal though as nothing falls out or pricks you as you’re quilting this unwieldy giant.
Quilting a quilt is a tough business. For a larger quilt I imagine it might not be possible to quilt myself on a standard sewing machine, and it is quite normal to pay someone with a longarm machine to do the quilting. However, a crib sized quilt is perfectly achievable and I was looking forward to getting stuck into this step. Before I began, I needed to make a quilting plan. I didn’t want to just sew row after row of straight lines, and I didn’t want any kind of free-motion quilting with my perfect triangles. The design I settled upon involved chunking groups of triangles together into sections and quilting diagonal lines, pivoting in places to sew the longest lines possible. Nothing was left to chance as I worked out my design in Illustrator. A little haphazard, but enough for me to print out and follow as I worked.
Quilting advice seems to be to start from the centre and work your way out, but I also read somewhere that you should stitch-in-the-ditch between each block first. In my case, a ‘block’ would be a row of triangles, so I began by quilting the seams between each row, beginning with the central line, but at the edge. In doing so, the layers are then securely stitched together, ready for all of those crazy lines, although the safety pins remained until they needed to be removed for sewing. I used a walking foot for all of the quilting, in order to minimize the shifting of layers during sewing.
My next quilting question was how to start and finish the stitching rows. Unlike most things I sew, the bobbin stitching would be visible and I wanted to avoid unsightly nests of thread and visible back-stitching which would be the inevitable result of starting each new row. The answer is to bring the bobbin thread up. You lower the needle where you want to begin stitching, then bring it back up. Then pull the fabric back a fraction, which has the effect of bringing a loop of bobbin thread to the top-side of the quilt. Simply pull this loop to bring the tail out and you’ll have no thread to trim underneath. Then begin sewing with micro stitches for a centimetre, before changing to your chosen stitch length for the rest of the row. But before the end, finish with similar micro stitches rather than a back-stitch. Trim the threads and you have a lovely neat row of stitching, tidy on the front and the back. There is no doubt that this is a time-consuming process, but when you see those lines of quilting growing, it’s very satisfying!
Here’s a progress shot, about half way through quilting. I marked the lines with a Frixion pen which ironed off perfectly afterwards. I didn’t quilt the border.
And I love how the back turned out, showing off those lines!
When the quilting was complete, I sewed around the very edge of the border to hold things together (and later to be hidden by the binding), before trimming the batting and backing to the same size as the quilt top.
The binding, I made myself from around half a metre of sea green cotton. Making bias-binding is one of my absolute favourite sewing techniques! Using a rotary cutter and quilting ruler for the bias strips, sewing them together for the length, and then feeding them through the bias tape maker to be pressed.
We had such a lovely burst of sunshine in early April that I spent a sunny hour or so finishing the binding by hand, sitting in the garden. Hand sewing is another favourite of mine, so what with plentiful pressing and bias-binding making I think quilting ticks a lot of boxes for me!
It was such a great feeling to finish the quilt, and here’s my final piece of quilting research. To pre-wash or not? Ordinarily, anything I make that is going to be washed (clothing usually) requires pre-washing the fabric so that no shrinkage occurs when washing the final garment. However, with quilting it seems that pre-washing is unnecessary, and it is the first wash of the finished quilt that produces the lovely heirloom quilt effect as the fabrics shrink and wrinkle a little. Not everyone washes a quilt before gifting, but I think it’s nice to give something that the recipients won’t worry about washing.
Here’s the full view of the finished quilt.
On Thursday 20th April a very special girl made her entrance into the world. My gorgeous niece, Evie (Evelyn Rose). It was such a pleasure to be able bring such a special gift when we went to meet her for the first time. Evie’s parent’s reaction was just as I had hoped for. To paraphrase my brother – “this is something that will be handed down to our Grandchildren”.
I’ve saved the best photos until last. Welcome to the world Evie!